Our Imperiled Oceans: Victory at Sea

The world’s largest protected area, established this year in the remote Pacific, points the way to restoring marine ecosystems

The waters around the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (yellow and blueback fusiliers) hold some of the world's most pristine coral reefs (Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Image Collection)
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That, in itself, was a major discovery. Scientists have a pretty good idea of what terrestrial wildlife and forests and deserts looked like before people started cutting trees, draining swamps and wiping out some species and introducing others. But the oceans' past has long been rather a blank. We fished first and asked questions later. One of the first great cases of overfishing, of north Atlantic cod, began in the 19th century, long before the scuba tank allowed us to get a good look underwater. Surviving accounts of fantastically abundant marine life, starting with explorers like Ferdinand Columbus (Christopher's son), seemed so different from what 20th-century fishermen and researchers had found that "people were wary to believe the history," says marine ecologist Stuart Sandin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "Scientific diving on coral reefs began in the 1950s, and the goal at first was descriptive. No one worried about whether what they were seeing was natural or had been modified by people."

It was only in the 1990s that marine scientists became aware of what Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia, calls the shifting baseline syndrome—the problem of establishing historic populations of marine life in a given species or community. Just what is a healthy number of, say, red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico? "Each generation [of scientists] accepts as a base line the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of [that generation's] career," says Pauly. The result is that, over time, the expectation of the natural number of fish in the sea gets smaller and smaller—until the population is so small that even a modest environmental perturbation, or a tad more fishing, causes it to unexpectedly collapse, as the cod population collapsed off Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 1990s.

By the time Stone's team arrived in the Phoenix Islands, marine biologists "were all subconsciously searching for the place that was truly pristine, that would end the debate about what a truly pristine reef should look like," Stone recalls. "And we knew it when we found it."

Obura says that once he dived into the waters of the Phoenix Islands, "I realized this was the holy grail and wondered how long it would last."

In 2000 and in a second survey in 2002, Stone and his colleagues documented more than 150 species of coral and 550 species of reef fish. While the diversity was not unusual for this part of the world, the abundance was. The team found numerous reef sharks and groupers that had become rare elsewhere. "We saw the highest density of big Napoleon wrasses in the world," says Stone, "and that speaks volumes because that's the first fish the fishermen fish if"—he burst out laughing—"fishermen fish fish. Seriously, if those are in good shape, you know everything else is going to be fine." A 30-year-old Napoleon wrasse can weigh up to 420 pounds, and in Hong Kong its flesh retails for $90 per pound; the lips sell for $300.

Why so many fish in the Phoenix Islands? The islands are remote: 2,000 miles from Hawaii and 700 miles from the nearest major airport, in Samoa, which precludes flying live catch to major markets. In addition, the creation of the reserve was possible in part because it came at a time when the virtually unpopulated islands were considered—well, largely useless.

Polynesians settled the islands and built structures of coral stone between 950 and 1500, but they never stayed for long, probably because of frequent droughts. The islands' main source of potable water is rain, which can be scarce. In the early 1800s, whalers charted most of the islands but seldom landed on them. Until the 1880s, U.S. companies mined many of the islands for guano, or seabird droppings, which is rich in phosphate and nitrate and is used as fertilizer. Great Britain later annexed most of the islands and planted tens of thousands of coconut trees. But coconuts, like people, require plenty of water, and the plantations dried up and failed or were abandoned. Colonies intended to ease crowding in Tarawa and the other Gilbert Islands were started in the 1930s and 1940s, but all had been abandoned by the 1960s.

Being halfway between Honolulu and New Zealand made the Phoenix Islands attractive as a refueling stop. Pan American World Airways Clipper seaplanes began touching down at the island of Kanton in 1940, but such travel ended in World War II, when Kanton was taken over by the U.S. military. After the war, Pan Am and other airlines returned with wheeled propeller craft, and a business exporting fish to Hawaii flourished briefly. But the long-range Boeing 707 jet, introduced in 1954, made the airport obsolete. In 1960, NASA built a tracking station for the Mercury space program on Kanton. The station closed in 1967. Two years later, the U.S. Air Force built a base to monitor the trajectory of Minuteman missiles, test-fired from California over the Pacific, but it too closed, in 1979.

That year, Kiribati was born as an independent nation incorporating the Gilbert Islands and the Phoenix Islands, along with most of the Line Islands. Today it has a population of 110,000. The nation's "exclusive economic zone," where it has sovereignty over natural resources (from 12 to 200 nautical miles from shore, the closest 12 miles being its territorial waters), is 1.37 million square miles, or larger than India. Its entire landmass is 313 square miles, the size of Kansas City.

When Gregory Stone first approached Kiribati officials in 2001 about creating a marine reserve, he carried a lavishly illustrated book of underwater photographs taken around the Phoenix Islands. "The book caused quite a sensation," recalls Tukabu Teroroko, then the deputy fisheries minister. "We had no idea there was so much life out there."


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